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​Experiencing altered states at the orchestra

by John Showalter | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Music | September 20th, 2017

Fall is arriving, and that of course means that the new season of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra’s “Masterworks” series sponsored by Sanford Health is right around the corner.

In the last couple concert seasons they have performed some truly gala events, with many universally recognized and occasionally bombastic pieces, such as Orff’s “Carmina Burana” or Rossini’s “William Tell Overture,” that were bound to delight both newcomers and regular concertgoers.

This season, however, the FM Symphony Orchestra aims to introduce the music enthusiasts of Fargo-Moorhead to some lesser known, but by no means less talented, members of the classical music repertoire.

“These last two seasons we have done our best to get the ‘wow’ factor,” said Linda Boyd, executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra. “We’ve been really building up audiences and this season we’re asking them to trust us to show them a new experience, to ‘jump in.’”

The first concert of the season, titled “Altered States,” is devoted to the portrayal of altered interior experiences, and according to Boyd, took her and conductor Chris Zimmerman all of ten minutes to create the lineup for. “It just came together.”

The evening will begin with “Music from Psycho” by Bernard Herrmann, a famous and prolific composer who is well known for his work in film scores, such as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.” Perhaps his most famous film collaborations, however, were with master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, having scored “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” and “Psycho,” just to name a few.

Most people, even if they have never seen the film “Psycho,” are familiar with one of its most famous scenes, which has worked its way into the American pop culture psyche. Of course, the scene in question is the infamous stabbing of Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane in the shower by Tony Perkins’ Norman Bates, accompanied with a shrieking violin that underscores her screams and the violence being portrayed.

While this scene and its accompaniment are easily the most recognizable in Hitchcock’s film, Herrmann’s strings-only score to the classic suspense film is equally powerful and even somewhat traditional at times.

Secondly, the audience will be treated to composer John Corigliano’s “Three Hallucinations from Altered States.” Corigliano, who is often classified as a contemporary classical composer, has collaborated with musicians such as Leonard Bernstein and Bob Dylan as well as scoring films, the “Red Violin” and the Ken Russell film “Altered States,” where the evening’s music is drawn from.

The film was based on a novel of the same name by Paddy Chayefsky, who himself based the novel on American neuroscientist John C. Lilly’s groundbreaking research into sensory deprivation and psychedelic drugs.

The film’s main character studies schizophrenia and begins to wonder if “our other states of consciousness are as real as our waking states” and begins to experiment with altered states of consciousness.

The three movements being played during the concert, “Sacrifice,” “Hymn,” and “Ritual,” all represent hallucinatory experiences that the character has throughout the film. This certainly makes “Three Hallucinations” the most modern-sounding piece of the evening.

The last piece of the evening harkens back to the Romantic era in Europe with French composer Hector Berlioz. He conducted music in the 1830s not long after Beethoven, and was originally set to pursue a medical career. However, after nurturing his talents at the Paris conservatory and exposure to the German hyper-romanticism of the day, Berlioz went on to pursue what he would be best known for, music.

“He was intense, crazed,” said Boyd. “He would probably be committed today.” In 1827, Berlioz discovered his passion for Shakespeare and fell into a deep, emotional, and violent romantic obsession with Harriet Smithson, who he had seen performing Ophelia in a production of “Hamlet.”

After unsuccessfully pursuing her, stories say that he turned to the comforting arms of opium and by 1830 he had written and premiered his first major work, “Symphonie Fantastique.”

“Symphonie Fantastique” was very unusual for a symphony of its day. First of all, it was comprised of five movements instead of the traditional four. Secondly, the symphony itself had a common theme, a story of sorts, what he called an “idee fixe”. He published several sets of program notes to go along with the piece and acquaint the audience with the story the symphony was portraying. “He essentially wrote a film score before film,” said Boyd.

Berlioz’s work, subtitled “An Episode in the Life of an Artist, in Five Parts” relates the story of an obsessive, unrequited love, perhaps derived from Berlioz’s own experiences. The musician around who the piece becomes romantically obsessed with a woman who embodies his greatest ideals. After becoming convinced that she does not appreciate his love, he attempts to poison himself with opium. The dose is too weak to kill him, instead putting him into a sleep where he is haunted by terrible visions of having killed his beloved. In this drug-fueled dream, the musician imagines that he is witnessing his own execution, being marched toward the scaffold. The piece ends with his vision of a witches’ Sabbath conducted at his funeral, peopled by terrible monsters and spirits. The audience accompanies Berlioz’s character from the heights of joy to the depths of madness and despair in a way that only music can portray.

If you decide to go, even though you will be physically seated watching an orchestra perform within four walls, be prepared to have your mind travel to its most distant vistas in a one-of-a-kind musical experience as you’re led by the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra through an evening of “Altered States”.


ALTERED STATES - A Symphonic Experience

Saturday, September 23 at 7:30 PM - 9:30 PM

NDSU Festival Concert Hall, 12th Ave. N and Bolley Dr. Fargo



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